Many schools like to say that their best teachers are “rock stars”. Well, unless you are Christ Church Episcopal School in Greeneville, I think you need to reset the hyperbole meter. More on that at the end of the post. I saw important focus on student reflection, systems thinking, and student-led project work here, along with one crazy-popular drumming course.
CCES is a K-12 school in the growing city of Greeneville, S.C. Their Upper School is busting at the seams having grown 30% in just the last few years. Part of that demand is fueled by a unique and innovative relationship with BMW who have their US corporate headquarters nearby. CCES is the only American school accredited by the Bavarian Ministry of Education, so they get quite a number of German ex-pat families applying to attend. As an IB school, CCES also has a curriculum that is familiar to European families.
I have visited a number of Episcopal schools and other non-affiliated schools that are increasingly setting aside time for students to slow down, switch off, and develop a range of skills in the areas of mindfulness, reflection, and self-understanding. CCES takes this seriously, with a number of practices, programs, and places on campus dedicated to the many faces of reflection. In addition to chapel services, they take time during the week for community meetings, quiet time, and a marvelous tradition of walking a simple stone labyrinth pathway. I watched as Lower School students circled and passed each other in silence, all finding their way along the path, sitting in the chilly morning breeze for their classmates to arrive at the center, and then go off for some group and personal reflection time. This is not a once-a-year event. CCES takes time to do this every week. During Lent, the whole school observes times of silence each week. The required, ungraded 11th grade class in Spirituality and Ethics includes foci on reflection, achieving peace and comfort in life, creating authentic relationships, the art of meditation, and the power of quiet and silence.
I sat in on a math course taught by my keeper for the day, Director of Studies Wes Clarke. Since I am lousy at math, we talked about why students come to school and the role of questioning. Those familiar with my book, The Falconer, will guess that the students quickly recognized the dissonance between what they learn in school and what they want to be in life. Why does this group of seniors come to school?
- “It is required.”
- “We will learn skills that are needed for working in the real world.”
- “To learn from roll models.”
- “Social interactions.”
- “The enjoyment of learning.”
- “To get into college.”
I asked them to articulate the difference between classes or teachers that they really enjoyed, where they felt they were actually learning things that would be useful in their futures as opposed to getting into a college.
- “Some classes you are constantly engaged. Those are much more fun and exciting.”
- “Classes where you work with others.”
- “When the teacher shows interest in you, asking how you are doing that day, you feel you want to come to that class.”
- “Where you are applying information, not just learning it.”
(They got really excited when I shared the image of painting classroom walls with idea paint. Why do we wait for students to lead on these ideas?) We diagramed the power of “what if” questioning; I am hoping they work out and send me some broadly theoretical ideas about the statistics of why “what if” works so well. Their homework from Mr. Clarke was to generate eight authentic questions to lead themselves through the next phase of their own project development.
Some other ideas and initiatives of note at CCES:
- The new Achievement Center is a marvelous flex space with moveable writeable walls and variously sized classroom and larger meeting spaces. IN addition to learning support and testing, the Center offers expanded high-end opportunities in keeping with a mission of inclusivity. They have a special independent research “club” where students can come develop projects in pursuit of individual passions; current projects they are pursuing include CSI study of historical cases, cryptology, and shared reading and blogging with students from other states.
- The course of study in the Lower School is designed to be more than interdisciplinary…possibly non-disciplinary is a better description. In the 3rd grade we watched students working in small groups as they learned the subsystems and system of the human body, all from a very systems point of view. This follows on previous studies in earlier grades of the ecosystem and solar system. The 3rd graders were able to easily explain to me what makes something a system. The classroom teacher: “If you can google it, they don’t need to memorize it. We are focusing on things that connect. The students have to take responsibility; I release that to the students, let them go. I ask them at the end of the day what they learned and they tell me. I know I did not teach them that; they are teaching and learning from each other. Some people are not comfortable with that “releasing” but it really works.”
- Upper School students take on major research or hands-on projects in 10th and 12th grade. I had lunch with three students who were passionate about these projects that they had created, designed, and implemented, putting in 100-200 hours on them. One was pursuing research in game theory, another doing community surveys on texting while driving, the third a long-term connection between work in Guatemala and pre-natal care that has evolved into a multi-year event supported by the school community. The list of other current projects being designed and pursued at CCES is too long to copy here, but includes elements of history, politics, music, art, ecology, space exploration, human interactions, global economics, and more. All of these result in oral presentations to internal and external audiences at the end of the year.
Oh, and that thing about the rock star? I am escorted into a doublewide portable classroom with a loud beat coming through the door. Every wall is covered with photos and posters like some cross between a ‘60’s head shop and a teenage boy’s dream bedroom. Five full drum sets face each other. Banging away is the guy in this photo, legendary drummer Paul Riddle of The Marshall Tucker Band. He teaches set drumming at CCES, and currently has, get this, 120 students, starting with the primer five-year olds! We talked concerts and Allman Brothers and the night Dan Ackroyd blew his harp all night with them at some dive in Manhattan. Guess where I could have stayed all day! My two takeaways from CCES? Good stuff happening there and every school in America needs its own rock star who loves to pass it on to the kids!